Jesse Wente is an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster, speaker, arts leader and chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Canada’s broadcasting system should reflect the people who live here.
That shouldn’t sound like a revolutionary statement. But Indigenous, Black and other racialized Canadians have been marginalized in film and television for so long – their voices muted, their representation minimized – that the pursuit of something even akin to equity has too often felt like an against-all-odds quest.
This is one of myriad issues that Bill C-11 – known as the Online Streaming Act – aims to address. While debate around the bill has been predictably contentious, it has also been eye-opening for many. The conversation has brought to mainstream attention the systemic obstacles that continue to stand in the way of marginalized voices when it comes to sharing their stories on-screen.
The passage of C-11 would begin to break down those barriers. It would start to open the doors to a more accurate and nuanced depiction of the modern Canadian experience. To say this legislation is overdue is an insult to understatement.
The way we watch film and television has been entirely transformed in the past decade. But it goes beyond technology – we’ve also changed as people, and as a country. We’ve become more aware of our own history through the stories we have been told and those we have not. There is an increasing desire to reckon with the future by better understanding our past. This requires even more storytelling, not less.
Yet the laws and guidelines that govern broadcasting and content creation haven’t changed since Brian Mulroney was prime minister. As a result, the gatekeepers remain largely the same. Shows and films continue to underrepresent – or misrepresent – the experiences of Indigenous people and others. We’re stuck in a loop.
You could view C-11 as simply a practical bill. It aims to update and adapt an outdated system of rules and regulations to a very different time and circumstance. But to reframe our broadcast sector as one that desires and indeed finds necessary the telling of stories long left untold – that would be a step beyond the practical, into the inspirational.
Many of Canada’s cultural bodies were initially established as tools of assimilation. Funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, for instance, was for years open to Indigenous artists only if they expressed themselves through an established European art form, such as opera singing or ballet. Over time, we’ve grown more enlightened – but our cultural institutions and frameworks still need to catch up.
As a country, we need to move beyond checkbox diversity, where a certain number of Indigenous or Black or Asian actors appear on-screen but not necessarily within stories that truly represent their upbringing or reality. We need authentic representation. We need our communities – and others across Canada – to be able to see their stories depicted, as told by those with a shared culture and history.
I think of it as the difference between a farm and a forest. For decades, our existing broadcasting rules have given us farms, which have provided a predictable, reliable, homogeneous harvest of content, year after year: everything in neat rows, presided over, managed, endlessly repetitious. Bill C-11 holds the potential to turn these farms into forests, where unpredictability reigns, old things are allowed to crumble, and new things are able to take root, grow and thrive.
I served as the first executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office, the mission of which is to champion Indigenous creators and support their stories across all screen platforms. Based on my work, I know that there is both a need and a demand for stories that come from these communities. Bill C-11 holds the potential to move us in that direction.
Indigenous voices can help define and differentiate Canadian culture. If given the chance, these creators could help change the way the world sees Canadian content – and shift things at home. When we get to know each other through art – when we begin to grasp each other’s histories, challenges and hopes – we improve our ability to come together for a common purpose. A sense of understanding leads to a shared sense of belonging.
If we get this right – and Bill C-11, in its current form, comes so much closer than what it seeks to replace – we can ensure more funding for a wider and more diverse range of Canadian programs. And we can reform the broadcasting system to ensure that it evolves fairly amid technological and societal changes. Bill C-11 could help us to imagine the future together.